Dan Rather Has an Idea

According to stories in the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times, newspapers of record for the nation’s elite snowboarders, Dan Rather gave a speech at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday, asking that President Obama create a national commission to “save journalism.”

As one of the papers put it, without a skosh of irony, “Rather told an Aspen audience that journalism has declined to such a point that it is time for the government to intervene.”

Attributing the decline of "great American journalism" to “corporatization, politicization, and trivialization of the news,” Rather suggested that the commission “ought to make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to keep news organizations alive.”

"If we do nothing more than stand back and hope that innovation alone will solve this crisis," he said, "then our best-trained journalists will lose their jobs."

It’s not every day that one encounters such a rich vein of stuff.  Puts one in mind of the children’s illustrations that ask the question, what’s wrong with this picture?  So many upside-down daffodils and trees growing carrots.

First, you know, there’s the problem that some consider the author of this scheme himself to be a disgraced figure in the world of journalism, having lost his job at CBS for the role he played in the airing of a bogus report about President Bush.

Then there’s the (unintentionally) droll picture he conjures up of a presidential commission as a kind of jobs program for the rescue of threadbare journalists, and the linking of the employment status of some of them with the very survival of journalism itself.  

But the most grievous error — that aspect of the Jabberwocky that fairly leaps off the page — is the very suggestion that government is the solution to what ails the media today.  Make no mistake, there are governmental policies that could, and should, be changed (like, for instance, an end to the newspaper/broadcast cross ownership rules), but there is no need for a presidential commission or “media czar” for the purpose.

One would think that a former network anchorman would understand the peril inherent in any intervention by the government into the affairs of the press.  It is this, after all, that is the primary concern of the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  What are the chances, for instance, that any such commission would use its mandate, and the media’s genuine agony, as cover to advance content regulations that parallel the commissioners’ political beliefs?

Speaking of his idea, Rather said that he was “throwing it out there for what it’s worth.”  Since the Aspen Institute charged $15 per ticket to this event, we know what they think it was worth, but I think admission should have been free.  It wouldn’t have improved the speech but the price would have been right.

The Big, Uneventful Day

A blog about media and communications policy would be remiss if it did not mark the fact that this is a watershed date in television history – even if nothing much seems out of the ordinary.

This, after all, is June 12, the date years in the making on which television broadcasters are converting their analog signals to digital.  For TV viewers with cable or satellite (i.e., most of us) there is no difference.  For those who still rely on antenna reception of over-the-air broadcast signals, there will be no more TV until they get a converter box (for which the federal government has been offering discount coupons for months).

The good news is that most people have already taken steps to become digital-ready.  Paul Karpowicz, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters TV Board, said at a press conference yesterday that only 1.75 million over-the-air households have not prepared for the changeover.  

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) said it received almost 320,000 requests for converter-box coupons yesterday alone, up from the recent daily average of 114,272.  And for those who somehow haven’t gotten the word about the switch to digital, the FCC has 4,000 operators standing by 24/7.

FCC and industry leaders acknowledge that some stations might experience a few engineering bumps.  But for broadcasters and viewers alike, the changeover is said to be going relatively (and even surprisingly) well.  

The FCC, NTIA, NAB, NCTA, and countless station engineers deserve a “well done” for making this watershed day so uneventful.  

Leave PBS Stations Alone

Since 1985, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has had a policy on the books stating that its member stations must offer a “nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service.”

It might be going a bit far to say that PBS has “adhered” to the policy.  Member stations routinely air presidential debates and weekly shows like “Washington in Review” that are nothing if not political.  The “enhanced underwriting credits” for big program funders like Boeing and Lockheed Martin look suspiciously like slick network TV commercials.   

And being British isn’t enough to make shows like “Are You Being Served?” and “As Time Goes By” educational.  Moreover, a handful of smaller stations run sectarian programs that include Catholic Masses and Mormon worship services.

Now, however, the PBS board is considering a revision to its so-called “Three Nons” policy that could force local religious programming off the airwaves of PBS member stations, or force those stations to give up their PBS membership.

A change in policy would likely affect stations like WLAE in New Orleans, which has aired a Sunday Mass since 1984, and Brigham Young University’s KBYU in Provo that carries Mormon worship services.

The proposed policy change is a bad idea.  A PBS committee “believes that if PBS or its Member Stations were perceived by the public to be ‘commercial,’ ‘political,’ or ‘sectarian,’ PBS could be hampered in its ability to carry out its mission.”  

Wait a minute – PBS seems to be carrying out its mission just fine with its members’ current mix of programming that includes all of the above.  

So why single out sectarian programming?  Some might argue that there should be a strict separation of church and state, since PBS member stations receive some funding from the federal government’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, either directly or through PBS.  

But one need look no further than the FCC, which regulates both noncommercial and commercial broadcasting, to diffuse that argument.  As far back as 1929, the agency (then the Federal Radio Commission) said that broadcast licensees would meet their “public interest” obligations by offering a “well-rounded” mix of programming that included “religion, education and instruction.”  In a 1946 report, the FCC said it expected broadcasters to make free time available to “religious, civic, agricultural, labor, and educational groups.”

The FCC strayed from that policy briefly in 1999, when it issued a ruling that would have banned religious exhortation, proselytizing, and personal expressions of religious belief.  The resulting firestorm was so fierce (including the swift introduction of several bills in Congress) that the FCC deleted the provision a mere month later.

PBS should take its lead from the FCC.  PBS would do well to respect the local character of its member stations, and allow those stations to meet the needs of their audiences without injecting an anti-religion bias.

As it is, public broadcasting in this country is a strange and unlikely amalgam of governmental and private interests, with stations licensed to state and local governments, public and private universities, and even religious groups.  Its fragile equilibrium could easily be disrupted – say, by an untoward policy change.

Changing the “Three Nons” policy as proposed will accomplish nothing positive.  On the contrary, quite likely it will cause a firestorm of its own that might well ignite the now-simmering debate about the very existence of PBS, and whether a broadcasting system that receives even minimal government funding is still a good or necessary idea in this age of media abundance.    

Back to Square One

Two of the Supreme Court’s decisions most awaited by First Amendment advocates this term have landed with a thud.  Or maybe a whimper.  But certainly not with a bang.

On April 28, the Court upheld the FCC’s power to implement a tougher policy against so-called “fleeting expletives” on live television.  This was the Second Circuit’s case involving profanities uttered by Nicole Richie and Cher during music-awards shows in 2002 and 2003.

The other shoe dropped today when the High Court considered the Third Circuit’s case involving Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.  The Supreme Court told the appeals court to consider reinstating the FCC’s $550,000 fine against CBS.  

In both cases the High Court skirted the constitutional question of whether the FCC’s content controls run afoul of the First Amendment.  Last week’s profanity decision, for instance, was decided on procedural grounds (upholding the FCC’s right to change its indecency policy) and only then by a slim 5-to-4 vote.

In both cases too, the courts of appeal had sided with the networks and against the FCC.  The First Amendment question will now most likely be addressed specifically at that appellate level and, one hopes, make its way back to the High Court for a definitive ruling.  

We know that the Supreme Court avoids reaching constitutional questions when a case can be decided on other grounds.  That’s exactly what happened here, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.  But it’s still a disappointment.

On a bright note, however, Justice Clarence Thomas said in a dissent that he thinks it’s about time to reconsider the two cases at the heart of broadcast regulation: Red Lion, which creates a lower standard of First Amendment protection for broadcasters; and Pacifica, which turns on the FCC’s authority to regulate “indecent” broadcast fare.

The openness of Justice Thomas is both refreshing and hopeful.  But, with the First Amendment question presently back at the appellate level, it will be a long time (if ever) before the Supreme Court tackles the underlying premises of Red Lion and Pacifica.  And with a new, and as-yet-unnamed justice thrown into the mix following the retirement of Justice Souter, all bets could be off.
 

A Unitary First Amendment

By guest blogger LAURENCE H. WINER, Professor of Law and Faculty Fellow, Center for Law, Science & Technology, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.
 
In last week’s Supreme Court oral argument of the “Hillary: the Movie” case, Citizens United v. F.E.C., the government attorney apparently perplexed several of the Justices by the breadth of his argument.  His argument, and the responses of some Justices, highlight a crucial aspect of the First Amendment.

Citizens United is a nonprofit corporation that made a 90-minute film sharply critical of Hillary Clinton.  During her presidential campaign it wanted to pay cable companies to make the film available to subscribers free via video on demand.

The McCain-Feingold “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002” (BCRA), however, bans “electioneering communications.”  This ban prohibits a corporation or labor union from using its general treasury funds for any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that constitutes express advocacy or its functional equivalent regarding a clearly identified federal candidate within a set time prior to an election.  Electioneering communications, however, do not include news or commentary by a media company, and the statutory ban does not apply to the print media or the Internet.

We are used to media exceptionalism, at least with regard to broadcasting.  That is, throughout its history broadcasting has struggled under a strange First Amendment jurisprudence affording it limited freedom of expression and subjecting it to a panoply of “public interest” obligations that would be constitutional anathemas for any other medium of mass communication.  

Political access rules and requirements for children’s educational programming, for example, fall in this public interest category for broadcasting.  BCRA strangely perpetuates this dichotomous approach by, on the one hand, in effect covering only “television” (broadcast, cable, and satellite), and at the same time exempting from its reach news and commentary in all media.

When pressed by the Justices, the government attorney took the position that the Constitution would allow Congress, if it wished, to extend the statutory ban to print media, a book for example.  To this, Justice Alito replied, “That’s pretty incredible,” going on to characterize the government’s position as allowing it to ban a book about politics, under an expanded BCRA statute, if published by a corporation close to an election.  

Justice Kennedy then demonstrated how bizarre the government’s position is by noting that a book, downloaded by satellite onto a Kindle reader, presumably both would come under the reach of the present statute and, in the government’s view, constitutionally be subject to censorship.  Before long Justice Scalia confessed to being “a little disoriented” because he thought the Court was dealing with the constitutional provision, known as the First Amendment, that he remembers as beginning with “Congress shall make no law.”

BCRA’s restriction on political speech in the guise of campaign finance reform is troubling in its own right.  What great evil of political propaganda justifies this sort of censorship?  But it is good to see members of the Court now “disoriented” by the hopelessly disjointed, media-based approach to First Amendment freedom of expression that the Court itself spawned in the middle of the 20th century and unfortunately maintains in our radically transformed digital era.  

These Justices were incredulous that the government would suggest it could extend a regulation of electronic media to print.  But the disconnect finally should go just as strongly in the other direction – what is prohibited in regulating print media is also prohibited for all media, including broadcasting.

In recent years, the Federal Communications Commission under former chairman Martin pursued a relentless and unwarranted campaign against so-called “indecency” on broadcast television.  The Supreme Court has pending before it a challenge to the Commission’s authority in this area to regulate what no government entity can restrict in any other media.  It would be gratifying if in its decision in the next few weeks the Court finally adopts and applies a unitary First Amendment.

Professor Winer is also the Faculty Editor of Jurimetrics.

Hate Speech and the First Amendment

“If you bring up the First Amendment, you’re a racist.”  In so many words that’s the message – or threat – to anyone who would dare question the constitutionality of a proposal that the government launch an inquiry into media content.     

The threat is leveled by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) in a Jan. 28 petition asking the FCC to conduct an inquiry into hate speech in the media.  The petition was written for NHMC by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law and the Media Access Project.

Ironically, the names of both groups (“Public Representation,” “Media Access”) would seem to suggest support for freedom of speech.  Here, however, the ultimate intent of these groups is to eradicate certain types of speech (and speakers) in the media, and to chill the speech of anyone who would question that endeavor.   

The petitioners throw down the gauntlet to First Amendment challengers with this line: “The NHMC understands that those who would prefer hate speech to remain under the radar will claim that such an inquiry violates the First Amendment.”  

Let me say up front that I find racial slurs and other forms of bigoted, biased, hateful speech to be utterly abhorrent.  Such speech usually emanates either from small-minded, obtuse bigots, or from persons who are smart enough to know better but are consumed with hate, anger, and at bottom, fear.

However, I do challenge the constitutionality of an inquiry that could lead to the banning of speech – not because I’m a bigot (as the petitioners imply), but because I happen to be a staunch supporter of the First Amendment.   

Like it or not, the First Amendment was designed precisely to prevent government censorship, not only of popular speech but of unpopular speech – even so-called “hate speech.”  

There are some narrow exceptions, like speech that incites immediate violence.  That seems to be the slim reed on which NHMC tries to build its case.  The petitioners say that there has been an increase in hate speech in the media.  Then they say that there has been an increase in the number of violent hate crimes against Hispanics.  By that juxtaposition they try to imply that there is a causal relationship between hate speech and hate crimes.  

But the petitioners offer no evidence – only vague assertions like “hate speech over the media may be causing concrete harms.”  Even a 1993 report by NTIA, which the NHMC petition quotes liberally,  “found that ‘the available data linking the problem of hate crimes to telecommunications remains scattered and largely anecdotal,’ and that [NTIA] lacked sufficient information to make specific policy recommendations.”

So what’s going on here?  NHMC and its public-interest collaborators take great pains to point out that they are only asking for an inquiry into what’s happening out there, “merely the collection of information and data about hate speech in the media” – not for any overt censorship.  Oh, and of course they’re not calling for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, they are quick to note.

But as we know, FCC notices of inquiry have a way of turning into rulemaking proceedings.  And if a rulemaking proceeding aimed at outlawing hate speech had the effect of outlawing conservative talk radio … who needs a Fairness Doctrine?

This is no time for First Amendment advocates to be cowed into silence by bogus challenges to their political correctness.  Speech isn’t always pretty, or pleasing, or even palatable.  That’s why we have a First Amendment.

Shadow Debate

By guest blogger ROBERT CORN-REVERE, partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLC, Washington, D.C.

During the presidential campaign, and particularly since the election, conservative talk radio and the blogosphere have been abuzz with rumors that the Democratic agenda would include reviving the Fairness Doctrine.  Prominent media activists have labeled such claims as fantasy and asserted they have no interest in reviving the policy, which required broadcast licensees to air “controversial issues of public importance” and to do so in a “balanced” way.
    
That debate has now been joined in Washington by actual experts in communications law.  FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, speaking at a Media Institute luncheon on Jan. 28, warned that there may be efforts to bring back the principles underlying the Fairness Doctrine, albeit in some modified form that may extend beyond the broadcasting medium.  In response, my friend Henry Geller, the venerable former FCC general counsel, criticized Commissioner McDowell’s views about the Doctrine and the concept of spectrum scarcity, and suggested instead that other new regulatory approaches may be appropriate.  

In a commentary written for Broadcasting & Cable, Henry acknowledged that “with the growth of cable, satellite, wireless, and, above all, the Internet, it is most unlikely that the fairness doctrine will return as a matter of general policy.”  But he also outlined other possible approaches, such as a spectrum fee to support meritorious programming, and suggested that the overriding issue is “the appropriate regulatory scheme for broadcasting in the 21st Century … not this skirmish over the unlikely re-appearance of the fairness doctrine.”
    
This looks like a debate in which both sides agree on two fundamental premises: (1) that the Fairness Doctrine is not likely to be resurrected, at least not in the form that existed before 1987; and (2) the real issue going forward is what type of regulatory model should be applied to broadcasting and other electronic media.  

Commissioner McDowell identified and critiqued various ways in which the government may assert its authority over broadcasting and other electronic media (including the Internet), while Henry Geller highlighted ways in which the “public trustee obligation” might be “clarified and made more effective.”  In short, they agree on the central issue, but simply offer quite different perspectives on the desirability of enforcing “public trustee” requirements.  
    
This overriding question about the proper regulatory approach is not confronting us because a new administration has come to Washington.  The Republican FCC under Chairman Kevin Martin launched an unprecedented number of regulatory initiatives designed to bolster and perpetuate government control over broadcast content and to extend such policies to other media. 

These efforts included a single-minded campaign to restrict broadcast indecency and Chairman Martin’s overzealous efforts to require a-la-carte marketing of cable and satellite programming.  They also included the regulation of video news releases – on cable as well as broadcasting – and proposed new rules to restrict product placement.  
    
One of Chairman Martin’s most ambitious initiatives, the so-called “enhanced disclosure form” which requires detailed quarterly reports on broadcast news and public affairs programming, and his proposed “localism” guidelines, to be overseen by mandatory local “advisory committees” and enforced by licensing review, would give the government far greater control over private editorial judgment than ever existed under the Fairness Doctrine.  In fact, forget the Fairness Doctrine.  “Localism” is the new “fairness.”  
    
The common element in all of these initiatives is the assumption that the government should oversee broadcasters’ (and perhaps others’) editorial choices – a philosophy that is antithetical to traditional First Amendment principles.  The real question, then, is whether the FCC can continue to maintain the legal fiction, eroded by time, technology, and case law, that the media it regulates are not entitled to full Constitutional protection.

Digital Technology: Double-Edged Sword

Two items in the Washington Post in the past three days point up how the relentless march of technology will affect news in the months to come – both how it is generated by the White House, and how it is reported by at least one local TV station.

President-Elect Barack Obama sees new technology as a means “to reinvigorate our democracy,” according to senior adviser David Axelrod.  And, as Chris Cillizza reported on Dec. 14, Obama is starting with the Saturday morning radio broadcast begun by Ronald Reagan in 1982.  

“The speech is still beamed out to radio stations nationwide on Saturday mornings, but now it is also recorded for digital video and audio downloads from YouTube, iTunes and the like, so people can access it whenever and wherever they want,” Cillizza reports.

It’s part of a “broader revolution” in how the Obama White House will communicate, according to Doug Sosnik, a senior aide in the Clinton Administration. "The mainframe for this White House will be the Internet, not TV," he told Cillizza.

Only two days earlier (Dec. 12.), Paul Farhi reported that WUSA-TV, Channel 9 in Washington, D.C., had reached a new labor agreement that would scrap the traditional two-person news crew of reporter and photographer.  Under the new pact, an individual “multimedia journalist” will report, shoot, and edit stories alone using digital tools.  Reporters will double as their own camera crew.  Camera operators will take on reporting tasks as well.

In the case of WUSA, however, the impetus is economic. The one-person operatives are part of a broad budget-cutting scheme under which these “multimedia journalists” will actually be paid less than current reporters.

It’s encouraging that Obama embraces digital technology and plans to use it extensively.  At the same time, it’s ironic that digital technology has siphoned viewers from broadcast television and weakened some local news operations to the point where they can only be saved by changes in news-gathering built around … digital technology.

FCC on the Offensive

Say what you will about the FCC, but you have to admit they’re a scrappy bunch when it comes to pursuing their crackdown on broadcast “indecency.”  First they persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case they lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – the one about Cher and Nicole Ritchie uttering a couple of verboten words during Fox’s “Billboard Music Awards” shows.

Now the FCC crowd is asking the Supreme Court to hear yet another indecency case they lost – this one in the Third Circuit involving the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe incident during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

The Supreme Court hasn’t even ruled on the Fox case yet, and in fact heard oral argument only about a month ago (Nov. 4).  But the word on the street is that the justices seemed sympathetic to the FCC’s arguments in Fox – perhaps even sympathetic enough to rule in the agency’s favor.  Handicappers are predicting that a vote favoring the FCC would be slim (say 5 to 4) and decided on narrow procedural grounds, rather than reaching the constitutional issues.  IF the vote goes the FCC’s way at all, that is.  

The common wisdom, of course, is that predicting Supreme Court decisions based on oral argument is a fool’s errand.  So, an unreliable prediction that foresees such a tepid outcome would seem a double whammy, enough to give one pause.

But not the FCC.  They reportedly are buoyed by the oral argument in Fox to the point that they want to pile on with the Janet Jackson matter.  The Commission did, however, request that the High Court defer a decision on whether to hear the Third Circuit case until after the Court rules on the Second Circuit case.   

This begs the question of why the Commission petitioned the Court at this particular time at all.  (The Court is not likely to issue a ruling in Fox until next spring or summer.)  Maybe this is just the Commission’s way of warning broadcasters that the indecency watchdog is not about to roll over and play dead.  To this observer, however, it seems a transparent ploy that might well prove all bark and no bite.    

Fairness Doctrine: The Talk Goes On

The Fairness Doctrine, or at least talk of a reimposed Fairness Doctrine, just won’t go away.  It was finally killed off in 1987 but the current Democratic Congress has been making periodic noises about bringing it back.

The big question now seems to be what would happen under a President Obama.  Would he actively support a return of the doctrine?  Would he accede to a Congress controlled by his Democratic friends who put a Fairness Doctrine bill in front of him?  Would he dare (or bother) to go against his congressional allies and veto such a bill?

All we know for sure has been ferreted out by the hard-working John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable.  He reported back on June 25 that Obama’s press secretary, Michael Ortiz, told him that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," and that the candidate sees the issue as “a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible."

On Sept. 18, however, George Will opined that an Obama-led government would bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  Will wrote:

“Until Ronald Reagan eliminated it in 1987, that regulation discouraged freewheeling political programming by the threat of litigation over inherently vague standards of ‘fairness’ in presenting ‘balanced’ political views.  In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide.  Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats.  Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives’ dominance.”

Will’s comments have stirred the pot once again, particularly among right-leaning blogs where much of the speculation and hand-wringing takes place.

In support of Will’s assertion are two factors.  The first is that Obama need not actively support a reimposition of the doctrine to sign a bill pushed by his fellow Democrats.  The second is that his press secretary also told Eggerton that Obama supports “media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets" – in other words, the traditional Democratic media-policy platform in which the Fairness Doctrine plank would fit snugly.

The Fairness Doctrine was a bad idea for a lot of reasons.  It should be allowed to rest in peace.  Sen. McCain gets that, and has co-sponsored legislation to keep it dead.  Sen. Obama says he opposes a new Fairness Doctrine.

Yet George Will can be a hard person to bet against.  In the case of Obama and the Fairness Doctrine, however, I’m hoping Will is wrong.